When I woke up this morning, it was Not Raining! I refrained from further exclamation points to spare you, but reader, everything that's not wet is damp. We need a rain break.
Rick and Ryan were similarly bolstered by the just-okay weather, and so we decided to execute on our most ambitious hike of this trip: Solomon Railroad, a long spur you can see from the water that ramps all the way down from mid-mountain to a series of trailing bumps that curl around Fish Lake. We'd been saving this for a dry day, because the hill looked very steep, the woods very wet, and the terrain uncertain.
Planning for an eight or nine hour hike, we fished into our totes for Greenbelly meal bars, granola bars, chickpea snacks, dried veggies, and packages of olives and salmon in oil.
I eat a lot ordinarily, but when I'm doing something physical, I go through a shocking number of calories. My body is very clear with me: hunger is a Right Now problem, probably at least once an hour. The consequences are mood-based, and dire.
The general schema of the hike: boat to a point on shore close to where the Railroad meets the mountain. Hike inward, expecting rough terrain, on a compass bearing. Hike upward, about 300m all at once. Arrive at the flat top of the Railroad and make a leisurely all-day descent, then hike back on the beach.
The "hike inward" part went as expected, though there were some unmapped water features and pretty substantial hills also uncaptured on our large-scale map. "Hike upward" actually went swimmingly: faster than expected and through fairly clear bush, though it was exhausting. Our first surprise came upon reaching the Railroad.
On the map, the Railroad looks like a big flat spur. But when we arrived (no view, inside a heavy cloud), we found a ridge just big enough for one bear trail.
The bear trail was great. But it quickly disappeared, bears presumably abandoing the Railroad, because the whole thing was covered with the blowdown of massive trees.
I've never seen the top of a ridge so littered; it must get incredible winds from both sides. Rootstocks taller than people stuck up into the air all around, and the deadfall trunks obliterated the ridgetop. So we started to pick our way around, over, under massive fallen trees.
As we descended, the gradual slope was as expected, but the deadfall density was undiminished. The spur broadened, but usually into a couple of interwoven sharp spurs, both fully obstructed, occasionally bridgeable by log balance-beam.
It started to rain.
My family is used to rough terrain. We banter, comparing route choice, laughing at non-injurious missteps. Ryan started us off singing, so as we climbed, hoisted, slipped, and gripped, we sang everything we could remember some words to, from Colors of the Wind and The Water is Wide, to Lord Won't You Buy Me a Mercedes Benz and Bobby Magee.
About four and a half hours in, we were lagging on song choices, Ryan was getting a blister, and me, a headache. The deadfall showed no signs of clearing up, so at our next snack break, we decided to call it: halfway or so down the Railroad, we'd cut a straight shot to the closer edge of Fish Lake and let that familiar terrain guide us out to the beach.
The rain was on and off, but mostly on. The downhill felt as steep as our initial upward hike, but with more treacherous footing where moss covered the holes between roots and boulders. I stepped in several, up to my shin, my knee. To our right, an open space turmed out to be the scar of a landslide.
As the land flattened from sheer down, to tall bumps of land with thick brush, to flatter land, we came into more deadfall. The deadfall thickened. The deadfall became more downed tree and boulder than actual land.
Moss dripped and slicked. The only places to stand were logs above an unknown abyss of rocks and more logs. Some of the logs would break apart when you stepped on them. Some of the logs weren't logs at all, just moss over holes. Moss dripped everywhere. Our hands got slick, and frozen, and peppered with devil's club.
Bogs and lakes not shown on our map appeared. Due to the thick brush and deadfall, it was impossible to assess their size without trying to just push through — visibility was about 15 feet with the brush. We balanced and fought through branches for hours in the cold, soaked from our rotten-bark-smeared heads to our raisining feet. There was no way to know how long the deadfall obstacle maze would go on.
At a certain point, it would be safe to say that I was Not Having Fun.
There's a careful art to enjoying this. You can't afford to focus on how very far remains before you can stop. It helps nobody to fixate on the fact that you can't shower and you will have no way to dry your clothes tonight. If your spirits are dropping, eat something, and then keep moving before you get cold.
The thing is, you have to like it. You have to find a way to make it fun, because there's no way out but the way you're going, and you need the energy that comes with cheer.
I've recently come through a multi-year depression. Mine was not as harsh as many people's depressions, but it laid me out, left me totally unable to function for days and weeks in a row, made me old and exhausted from crying.
It's deeply unfair to have to muster grit from that place: hope is the thing you can't make. The spiral says: every way is down. Shut down. But to get out, you have to decide to look up. It's not simple, and it mostly doesn't work, but for me the only way to stop was to gather the energy I didn't have, over and over, and say: breathe. You are responsible for yourself, and though people can keep you company, nobody can carry you.
Look around. What colors are here? How many can you name? Can you go outside and see something beautiful?
It's a deliberate disruption to the train of thought, but the beauty is at least as real as the spiral.
I'm doing better now. But in the depths of my depression, it was always easier to do something physically straining, challenge my body, prove to myself: I can do anything. Put myself into a situation where I'd have to pull through.
It's not exactly an injection of false enthusiasm to flip that mental switch and say: this is fun, actually, instead of miserable. Look at me using my muscles and skills and figuring out a way. It's raining, the route and the ground and the next time I'll be warm are all unknown, and look how strong I must be.
It helps if somebody can come up with a good song to sing.
Balancing on a wet, rotten log above an abyss of unknown depth, I ate a granola bar. I looked up toward the sky and found awe in a snapped-over tree, feet-long splinters binding the otherwise-healthy pieces of the trunk. I pulled out my soggy phone to take a picture of a tiny mushroom popping out of the moss. And then I smiled and kept going, because you'll get cold if you stand still.
"Are you going to take the Bridge of Mysteries?" There's another rotten log, a gap in the center, but otherwise spanning the next flowing water. Ryan rejects it, so I take the challenge, wrestle my body over the gap on a bendy, overhanging alder branch. I make him watch, head shaking, as I mantle. He finds a different way around.
Another unmapped lake appears out of the tangle. I shove forward, feet on logs that break under my feet, dangling from spiky spruce boughs, trying to gauge a way around or across. Rick is to my right, wading carefully into the reeds. We manage an improbable course that toys with islands of slow-sinking moss and wispy little branches as our sole support above water. Both Rick and I slip and fall horizontal on the water but make miraculous sideways-roll saves on our thick raingear and somehow don't get soaked.
Ryan leads us over one chain of logs, and then the next. Then I'm in front, and I'm thrilled, because look! Huckleberry bushes, thick, over my head, but there's real, non-log ground!
We're all wearing a bit thin by the time we make it to familiar territory at the edge of Fish Lake. We're noticeably slow retracing a route from earlier in the week to the beach- and a little nervous, finding fresh moose droppings and fur caught in the devil's club directly on course. But we make it to the beach, take the final rocky walk to the boat. It's been a bit over eight hours.
But wouldn't you know? As we motor back to our beach, the sun starts to come out. Maybe my pants will even dry, and I'll be the luckiest girl in the world.